Why Russia Won the Ukrainian Elections
No. 2 2005 April/June
Andranik Migranyan

Andranik Migranyan is Director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York.

Passions have subsided and a new government has been formed in
Ukraine. The new fledged contours have become visible for
reconsidering the new political space. How should Russia assess the
“orange revolution” and what new prospects have opened up for
Russia-Ukraine relations as a result of that dramatic event?
Only the most careless people failed to mock Russian policy and the
work of Russia’s political technologists during the Ukrainian
revolution. Only the most careless failed to point out Moscow’s
awkward steps, nor mention Russia’s crushing defeat in the
Ukrainian election, in which the Moscow was forced to defend its
political line for the first time in its contemporary history.
Perhaps this is the reason my assessment of what has transpired in
Ukraine may sound rather outlandish.

The candidate of Ukraine’s eastern, Russian-speaking regions,
Victor Yanukovich, lost the election, of course, but it appears
that Russia nevertheless scored a victory on the strategic plane;
and it occurred despite, not because of, steps taken by Moscow.
There are several reasons why I believe this to be the case.

First, Yanukovich did not say anything fundamentally different
from what the former presidential candidate Leonid Kuchma had said
in 1994. He made the same promises about preserving the status of
the Russian language and building close integration between Russia
and Ukraine (Kuchma had also spoken about a special relationship
with Russia and a special legal relationship between Kiev and the
Crimea). In the past, each time a Russian-supported ‘candidate of
the east’ was victorious over a ‘candidate of the west’ (Kravchuk’s
victory over Chornovil, Kuchma’s victory over Kravchuk, Kuchma’s
victory over a Communist candidate), we witnessed the strengthening
of Ukrainian statehood and the country’s drift to more
independence, greater economic engagement with the West, and closer
political and military ties with NATO and individual Western

In the past, we already savored the victories of eastern
candidates over western candidates in Ukraine, with the specter of
Russia looming large over the country. However, Russia failed to
retain Sevastopol as the main base of its Black Sea Fleet, except
for some meager leftovers of its naval infrastructure. Nor did it
secure a real endorsement of the status of Russian as the second
official language there. It failed to make serious integration or
engagement with Ukraine in building more or less efficient
structures within the framework of the Commonwealth of Independent
States. What did transpire was the continuous siphoning of Russian
natural gas from transit pipelines and the theft of Russian
electricity. These things happened despite assurances about “close
relations” and a “strategic partnership” in grandiose speeches that
were void of any real political content.

It seems that a Yanukovich victory would have brought about a
continuation of the same policy line. Ukraine would have continued
to block Russian money and Russian businesses from entering its
markets; it would have continued a drift toward NATO and the
European Union; it would have continued to strengthen the
foundations of its independence and statehood; it would have
remained cautious toward CIS projects and attempts to set up
tangible multinational mechanisms to control economic, military and
political processes unfolding there.

Yanukovich’s electoral defeat thus does not mean Russia’s
defeat. His loss in the election means Russia’s deliverance from
its previous hazardous policy line that failed to deliver fruit
and, at the same time, created the illusion of a Russian presence –
an ephemeral influence and obscure achievements which only served
to veil the reality.

This is the first conclusion that comes to mind after an
impartial analysis of the events in Ukraine. In a similar vein, I
recall something I heard ten years ago from Vitaly Portnikov, a
Ukrainian journalist well-known in Russia and a savant of Ukraine’s
internal politics. He told me there was no danger to Ukrainian
integrity and statehood while the clans representing
Dnepropetrovsk, Donetsk, and other eastern and southern regions of
the country continued to come to power.

What is the second conclusion to be drawn from the Ukrainian
events? It is that a candidate from western Ukraine has won the
presidency for the first time in the 14 years of Ukraine’s
independence. This has real global significance: the West won the
race versus the East, and a shadow with Western contours was
clearly visible behind the victory of western Ukraine. Those were
the contours of NATO and the European Union that openly emerged
during the mediation process. Polish President Alexander
Kwasniewski, who is a friend of U.S. President George W. Bush,
Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus, and the most expert man on
international affairs, the EU’s de facto foreign and defense
minister Javier Solana excelled in that area in particular.

This sets a totally new tune to the situation in Ukraine:
responsibility for maintaining its territorial integrity and
guiding national development now lays with the EU and NATO, that
is, Brussels and Washington. The problem, however, is that the
overemphasis on “democratic values,” which many  believe has
turned Ukraine into a country drastically different from Russia
since the ‘orange revolution,’ has produced the impression amongst
the Ukrainian people that their post-revolutionary democratic
country is now prepared for a rapid and painless integration into
Western economic and defense organizations. Now the new authorities
in Kiev, as well as the EU and NATO leaders, are scratching their
heads about how to live up to the expectations that the public and
political quarters in Ukraine have for their country’s swift
integration into Western civilization. Whether this is going to
happen or not will predetermine the answer to another question: has
Ukraine acquired a new quality in the eyes of the West, which has
made it essentially different from Russia? Ukrainian and Russian
liberals insist it has.

 For the first time in years, these circumstances give
Moscow a freedom of action. Now it can take a step back. Russia can
take an advantageous political position and transfer relations with
Kiev to an area of tough pragmatism where Russian economic and
national interests would be duly heeded – without demonstrating
direct engagement in Ukrainian affairs.

I find this extremely important now that we are witnessing – for
the first time – a split in Ukraine that was not caused by Russia
or Russian policy. This split has divided the country into the
west-central regions, on the one hand, and the east-southern
regions, on the other. The latest elections have exposed the
fragility of Ukrainian statehood. It will yet have to stand the
test of the victory of the West over the East. In previous years,
when it seemed that the East was winning and that Russia was
standing behind it, not a single prominent political force in the
country called for turning Ukraine into a federation or push for
separatism (the exception is the Crimea, which represents a special
case. The Crimean crisis began during Mikhail Gorbachev’s
perestroika and resulted in large part from the methods used to
turn the peninsula over to Ukraine. The Crimean secessionist
movement had different origins, which the southern and eastern
regions of Ukraine did not share).

The problem of territorial fragmentation was off the list of
tangible political factors and there were no signs of a threat to
Ukrainian statehood, although politicians of different colors
recognized the problem of regional fragmentation at a purely
theoretical level. At a conference of regional leaders from eastern
and southern Ukraine in Severodonetsk, it was obvious that the move
toward autonomy and federalization was due to internal problems in
the country rather than Moscow’s malicious designs.
How the new administration headed by Victor Yushchenko and Yulia
Timoshenko will tackle these problems is far from clear. Add to it
the problem of outdated factories in the east and the south, which
still provide jobs to hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of
people. The new Ukrainian government will inevitably bump into this
glaring issue once they start a course of rapid reforms to accustom
the Ukrainian economy to EU requirements. Industrial modernization
will only serve to aggravate the tensions between the two parts of
the country.

In other words, the presidential elections highlighted the
vulnerability and internal disunity of Ukrainian statehood. This
furnishes Russia with a good opportunity for maneuver as it chooses
its political line on Ukraine; this stance will largely depend on
how Kiev decides to cooperate with its northern neighbor.

The third conclusion of the Ukrainian election: never before did
the West get involved in electoral processes on the post-Soviet
territory to such a degree – not even in Georgia. This should not
be surprising, however, since strategy-makers in the West and
elsewhere have always voiced apprehensions that Ukraine might one
day unite with Russia. Such an event would add a fundamentally new
quality to Russia; even if it only united with the southern and
eastern regions, the Russian Federation might get better
geopolitical positions, an additional workforce of about 13 million
educated and highly qualified people who share a cultural and
linguistic identity with the Russians, and an extra potential in
the economy, defense and technologies. And given Russia’s ongoing
economic rise – against the background of numerous global conflicts
which threaten to tear apart the world – Moscow might then secure a
totally new position with regard to Brussels and Washington.

That is why I believe the West interfered with the elections on
such a massive scale and with tremendous determination. The crux of
the matter is bigger than the hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars
in the form of grants and direct aid that the West poured via
governmental and non-governmental institutions to nourish the
orange revolution, not to mention the numerous groups organized by
young people and political activists for the purpose.

Washington and Brussels interfered with a strong hand by warning
Kuchma and Yanukovich against the use of force despite the fact
that law and order had broken down on a massive scale:
demonstrators prevented the government from performing its duties
by blocking its administrative buildings.

This situation reminded me of the December 1990 summit in Malta,
when President Bush squeezed out of Gorbachev a promise to refrain
from using force in the former Soviet Baltic republics. That
pressure encouraged the Baltic national movements and their leaders
to freely stage mass actions aimed at seizing power. They were
confident that Gorbachev would not risk using force on a massive
scale, and that, if the army or official agencies made some
sporadic moves, he would try to distance himself from them. That
was exactly what happened in January 1991 during the events in
Vilnius and Riga.

In Ukraine’s case, Kuchma and his associates preferred to
succumb to the diktat from Washington and Brussels. Apart from
that, however, there was one more notable event which I would like
to mention. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage made a
phone call to Yanukovich and strongly warned him that the Americans
were against any separatism in Ukraine or its breakup. His comments
came after the leaders of the eastern and southern regions had
voiced the idea of a possible split of the country at the
conference in Severodonetsk. Thus, outside pressure created a
favorable internal and external setting for the victory of the
orange revolution.

Certainly, the situation might have prompted Russia to engage in
an open standoff with Brussels and Washington and stimulate the
separation of eastern and southern Ukraine from Kiev and West
Ukraine, but that would have meant a head-on collision with the
U.S. and the European Union – something that Russia was not
prepared for. Thankfully, the Kremlin acted as it did. It was
doubtful the separation plan would be implemented in conditions
where the east and the south had sporadically built a union against
Kiev that later showed its institutional weakness.

Whatever the case may be, the current situation has many
differences compared to Kuchma’s time. The Ukrainian scene is much
clearer and understandable now and new opportunities have opened up
that make it possible for Russia to formulate an appropriate line
of conduct. It looks like Moscow has for the first time received an
opportunity to influence the processes from the outside without
direct involvement in them, thus allowing the Ukrainians to settle
the basic problems of their statehood for themselves.

There is one more conclusion to be drawn. Yushchenko, as prime
minister under Kuchma, prudently gave Russian capital much greater
access to Ukraine than Yanukovich. Now, a candidate from western
Ukraine, Yushchenko will have a freer hand in conducting his Russia
policy without fearing accusations of selling out Ukrainian
sovereignty and independence – fears that constantly loomed over
Kravchuk and Kuchma. There was a similar experience during the
Soviet-U.S. standoff, when the Republicans felt free to build a
constructive policy toward the Soviet Union. They did not fear
being accused of giving in to Communism and totalitarianism.
Finally, I would like to focus on two more issues pertaining to the
future of Russian-Ukrainian relations. First, the situation has
unveiled the major vectors of Ukraine’s policy. These are the
maintenance of bilateral economic relations with Russia and
neutralization of Russia, with a simultaneous drift toward
integration into the European Union and NATO.

However, at a recent conference, which brought together
representatives of the Ukrainian political elite, the EU and NATO,
Western diplomats tried to cool down Ukraine’s passionate desire to
immediately open talks on a program of accession rather than a
program of cooperation, and to prepare all the necessary conditions
for integration into the EU and NATO. Obviously, the structure of
Ukraine’s economy, its economic development level, and the
situation within the EU – which has recently assimilated ten new
countries and is getting ready to admit Romania, Bulgaria and
Croatia – make Ukraine’s accession to the EU scarcely conceivable
in the near future. Ukraine’s state of affairs with NATO is quite
the same, although Washington may want to get Ukraine into NATO
before it joins the EU. Yet Kiev’s fast track to the North Atlantic
bloc may bump into an internal obstacle.

The major political players in Ukraine have a consensus that
states Ukraine cannot modernize its economy and society without the
EU, and cannot maintain stability without Russia. This means the
Ukrainian leaders will have much greater support if they revise
their policy toward the CIS Common Economic Space in favor of a
faster European integration, than if they set out to integrate with
the West militarily. In the latter case, they will run into serious
problems. Public opinion researchers say most Ukrainians do not
support an engagement with NATO since it will be perceived as
joining a military and political union against Russia. Ukrainian
society is unprepared for such a step at the moment and does not
want a divorce with Russia, especially considering that Ukraine
will become a frontline state if embraced by NATO’s defense

It looks like a sizable part of the Ukrainian elite shows
interest toward the country’s more rapid economic association with
the EU. At the same time, ideas that Ukraine may have a special
military and political status are emerging. A former proposal on
NATO’s and Russia’s security guarantees, once made to the East
European countries should they not seek accession to NATO, 
may become acceptable to the majority of Ukrainian society and
elite, including its liberal Ukrainian patriots. Important
representatives of those circles have more than once spoken on this
subject at international conferences and in public speeches.

Russia would apparently do a reasonable thing if it treats
Ukraine’s rapid engagement with Europe and the European Union with
less emotion and more understanding, even though such a move may
entail a revision of the agreements on the Common Economic Space.
Simultaneously, it would make sense to sound out the American – and
especially French and German – considerations about a treaty that
would help Ukraine receive NATO’s and Russia’s guarantees of its
neutrality and security, and to draft it together with Ukrainian
politicians. Ukraine might get the same status that Austria had
after World War II under the 1955 treaty.
Second, it is important to refrain from a hasty elaboration of a
new strategy and take a certain pause in relations with Ukraine.
People in Russia and Ukraine must have time to digest the aftermath
of the ‘orange revolution’ and to develop a clear understanding of
what has happened in that country and how those events have
affected Russia’s relations with Ukraine and with the West –
especially as the process of reconsidering the political field has
begun in Ukraine.

We must wait and see what happens to the ‘orange revolution’
coalition, identify the directions along which the new political
forces – some of which have already begun a parliamentary election
campaign – will be growing, and assess the degree to which the
revolution leaders are really going to reform political power and
shift its center to parliament and the Cabinet. Also, we must
understand whether or not the new Ukrainian leaders are ready to
make dramatic moves with regard to Moscow.

All of this requires serious consideration. Thankfully, the
situation does not require Russia acting expeditiously or
conducting a pre-emptive policy. The most advantageous position is
to have the time to pause. This provides the freedom to maneuver in
time and space so as to be able to react adequately to Kiev’s
actions with a clear understanding of Ukraine’s political field. It
will provide a sober moment to reflect on the guidelines for
Ukraine’s development, along with its opportunities for, and limits
to, integration into the European economic structures and
international security organizations.